To Life, to Art – Badong Bernal

I never worked with Sir Bernal, but it was hard not to know of him.

He designed the set for “Comfort Women” made out of bamboos. The lead actress would be bruised every time they had to go through her rape scene. Director Missy Maramara asked if there was any way to keep her from bruising. Bernal’s retort, “Let her adjust to the set.”

He never hobbled with a cane. He strutted, with confident strides down Gonzaga Hall. Rumor has it, he was sighted without his cane once. Why? “Style.” He said simply.

It was also for that reason he put huge lights in the wings during a ballet performance. Never mind that dancers exited and entered from there and had to watch their step. It was an inconvenience yes, but there was no better way to put light on the full form of the body. You could see it even if you were seated in the last seat of the last row of CCP Main Theater.

For Bawat-Tao (Everyman), he saw a see-saw to describe the delicate balance of life sought by Everyman. Say what you will about Metropolitan Theater Guild’s Midsummer Night’s Dream but most of its magic, I feel, would not be possible without Badong.

He was old-school: he screamed at people till they got it right. He even threw his cane at students. They say, the more he screamed at someone, the more promise that someone actually had. Sure enough, a blockmate that got the brunt of his temper sought him to be her thesis adviser. She did well.

Some other things told to classmates:

“Never allow yourself to be mediocre!”

“To create, you must learn to destroy.”

Difficult lessons that even I take pains to learn, over and over again.

I cried when I found out he had passed. I couldn’t understand why. “Because he is an institution. He’s one of those that made it possible to actually work in theater.” says a good friend, Mahar.

Sure enough, in his passing, there’s a change in the air. There is loss, yet, but then there’s the sense of so much more to come. After all, it’s a vibrant year for local theater.

Besides, another friend quipped, “The good Lord needed someone to manage all the Souls in Soul Parade day. Who else but.”

I can imagine him dressing up the people we love in those rich, Asian-inspired robes.

Love and light, Badong Bernal. R.I.P.

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Back to Basics: What to keep in mind when reviewing theater

I lead a dual life as writer and freelance theater practitioner. My professional engagements in theater limit my coverage of the scene, but when available, I write what I can. Theater critics have their place and they are necessary, but there’s no use keeping them around if their criticism is, frankly, misguided.

There are very few reviewers in the Philippines who know what they’re talking about when they review theater.

So back to the drafts, and before you write out your review, consider the following —

1) Before you write about that part – are you sure you know what you’re talking about?
Everyone has a different sense of aesthetic, so focus on what you’re sure of. Don’t be a lights guy who tells the spinner how to balance his sound, or a stage manager who tells an actor how to attack his role. Keep in mind that the average reader just wants to know if its worth it to spend on a ticket, so look at it that way. Does it feel like a complete show? Are there parts that feel unrehearsed? Are there things you couldn’t hear, or faces you couldn’t see? Answer those questions instead. Don’t try to go over yours, or the average audience member’s head by getting into the nitty-gritties. The experts will catch you and prove you wrong.

2) Do you have pre-empted expectations of the show?
I’ve seen entire families brought to watch Avenue Q, while Xanadu the Musical is based on one of the worst movies ever made. Do those misconceptions stick with you throughout the show? Do they affect your viewership? If yes, explain what enforced or broke those misconceptions. Which leads us to—

3) Are your ideologies at the door?
Art has its grudges. If you have an ulterior motive to art, come clean with it. The best reviews I’ve come across parks its grudges in the opening paragraphs, and makes the framework for its opinions crystal clear in the process. I dislike reviews that try to pass as theater bibles. Help with audience development, companies want to know what kind of people watch their shows, give them a clear idea where you’re coming from.

4) Know your lingo: You don’t review the preview.
That’s why most theater companies have a PREVIEW before a  CRITICS NIGHT. A preview is equivalent to the first full-length dress-tech rehearsal with audience for a simulated show experience. Things will go wrong on preview night as it is the final knot in the process of production. CRITICS NIGHT is the first real show, and you’re welcome to sharpen your claws there.

5) You get what you pay, or don’t pay for. As much as possible, try to pay for your ticket. The fact that you paid for your ticket will make all the difference in your review, now that you’ve put value to seat and your time.

6) Show, not tell.
This applies to all opinion pieces. Assume your readers have not seen the show yet. Most of the time, the stuff onstage has never been seen or heard of before. This is a writing basic: give examples, give supporting details, don’t make generalizations.

A lot of these are writing basics. Golden rule: never forget the basics, they always work, in print or online.